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Joel Justus & Wildcats recap victory over Kentucky State

Tonight was a great team win and now it’s time to focus on Michigan State.

NCAA Basketball Tournament - First Round - Jacksonville Photo by Matt Marriott/NCAA Photos via Getty Images

The Kentucky Wildcats scored a victory over in-state opponent Kentucky State by a score of 81-53 on Friday inside Rupp Arena.

These past two games have allowed us to learn a lot about the 2019-20 Wildcats. We’ve seen what different lineups Cal wants to throw out there, some early leaders on the team, and that this is a defensive-focused team right now that will win ugly.

However, the real test is coming up in a few days. The Cats are traveling to New York City on Tuesday to start the season against the #1 ranked Michigan State Spartans.

It’s going to be an exciting game, and we’ll really be able to tell where this team stands after Tuesday night.

But first, assistant coach Joel Justus and select players met with the media to discuss the victory.

Below is a transcript from UK Athletics of what they had to say:

Joel Justus

JOEL JUSTUS: Early in the season you want to see where your team is and I think for our guys you saw a little bit better fight, and we talked about that after the Georgetown game, getting out-rebounded. This was a game that we focused all week on coming back, playing with a little bit more aggression, playing with a little bit more fight on both ends of the floor, especially once the ball was shot. Offensive and defensive play with a little bit more physicality. I think you saw that out of some guys tonight, which was good.

Q. Why do you think EJ Montgomery struggled so much in these preseason games given that he’s done this before?

JOEL JUSTUS: I think EJ is trying to figure things out, just like a lot of these guys are. Everyone has a little bit of a different role in their first season, the second season, third and fourth. I think what Cal and our staff is trying to do is put him in positions to where he feels the most comfortable, where we can put him in a place that where he is most effective. So I think that that’s a process. And I think EJ’s doing everything that he can in practice and on his own. And sometimes the ball bounces your way, especially early, you’re playing with new teammates, you’re playing against teams that are keying in on him. So I think this is an opportunity for him to keep getting better. Like I said earlier, we just want to see where we are today, and I think he did some good things, he’s gotten better, I think, and next thing is we’ll see on Tuesday night.

Q. When you look at Kahlil’s (Whitney) stat sheet there, is that kind of a fair expectation for what you would like to see from him night in, night out, or are there things still missing there?

JOEL JUSTUS: Well, I think that the thing that stood out the other night was his rebounds in the first game. Then tonight he comes back and has five rebounds, 15 points. He was involved in the game much more tonight. I think that’s what Cal has really got after him, to be a guy that’s involved on the ball, off the ball, rebounding, deflections, he’s such a live body and he should be a guy that’s a tremendous two-way player and then he makes shots. So that comes as a byproduct of being involved in the game, being a guy who is trying to kind of impose his will both ends of the floor. I think that you can expect that out of Kahlil. Then the jump shots, I think, are an added bonus.

Q. Coach Cal talked about assessing the level of toughness for this team and I wanted to see where you thought the team was at, specifically for tonight.

JOEL JUSTUS: I think we’re better than we were against Georgetown. And I think at this time of the season, and I would assume that Cal would say the same thing. You want to get better every single day. When we’re on the pursuit of individuals becoming their best version and then collectively our team becoming our best version, you’ve got to just take steps each and every day. I think today was a day that we got to suit up against somebody else, a team that came out and give us some different challenges than maybe we were expecting. And I think you go back, you look at the film tonight, you address it tomorrow morning, and then obviously we’re getting ready for an opponent on Tuesday night.

Q. What did you think of your back court chemistry whether it was two guards or three guards tonight?

JOEL JUSTUS: I think our back court are tremendous players, first of all. They’ve got a great feel, they got a couple guys with experience. You’ve got Tyrese (Maxey) that’s an electric guy on both ends of the floor, and I think they’re just going to continue to get better and better. Immanuel (Quickley) is just a totally different player. He plays with a different swag, he plays with a different level of confidence, a greater purpose, I think, of who he is and who he wants to become. And Ashton (Hagans) is Ashton. He’s a guy that comes in, is a big-time dog on the ball who gets after it and he’s putting pressure on the defense by getting downhill, getting paint touches. And those guys are only going to get better playing together.

Q. Last time these two teams played, Coach Cal had highlighted that KSU exposed some weaknesses in that year’s UK team. Did you see anything that was exposed this time or any weaknesses that you think that you might need to shore up on before your next game?

JOEL JUSTUS: Well, I think a team that shoots 30 3s in a game, that’s something we’re going to go out tonight and take a look at. It’s a little bit of, especially in early season, we have had trouble with that here. Teams making 3s. Even with the line backing up, they get 29 off, they make eight, so roughly half their points come from behind the line. How many of those were not contested, how many of those did we not leave our feet, our hands were down. And I think even looking back at last year, especially early, our team struggled early guarding in the line. So we’ll take a look at that tonight, address it tomorrow morning with the guys and we’ll see. I think that’s something that we’re going to have to, obviously, defend throughout the year. It’s become such a big part of basketball. So for them to come out and make eight but then really shoot 29, that’s something we’re going to have to really take a close look at tonight.

Q. What did you think of Nate’s (Sestina) play tonight? He almost had a double-double again. And it seemed like more he was low-posting and was more effective there than just the stretch four stuff?

JOEL JUSTUS: Really, we hadn’t worked against zone at all. That’s part of why Nate was down there. I think Nate’s energy is infectious with this group. Have you a group of young people that don’t really know what to do. Going back to the 3-pointers, all right, well, you play guys in high school, it’s fine to just kind of be there. You’re bigger faster, stronger. You’re going to contest their shot just being there. Now, guys are making those threes. It’s the same thing all across the board, when you get to this level, guys have to talk. Transition defense. They have to be engaged not only themselves, but they have to be engaged with their teammates. And Nate is a guy that’s a connector on the floor because he talks. He’s a guy that is not only going to be in the right place himself but he’s going to make sure, one, two, three other guys are in the right place every time down the floor. Now, what you hope is that you can find of group of guys that are connected. And if Nate’s the guy that’s driving that, if he’s the straw that stirs the drink, you might say, hey, that’s going to be a big thing for us especially in November and December.

Q. Can you kind of elaborate a little bit on what the treatment plan is for Nick and kind of the timeline on whether he’ll be ready to go or not?

JOEL JUSTUS: I know he’s been working around the clock. I’m not kind of privy to exactly what he’s doing. I know he’s in there a ton and he’s working as hard at that as he does on the floor. And Geoffrey Staton does a tremendous job with our guys of getting them ready, getting them recovered. So I have no doubt that he’s in a good place in terms of getting back sooner. But really day-to-day, we’ll just figure that out.

Q. When you talk about Nate being a guy that could kind of stir things for you guys. But what about Ashton? How happy are you with his, his stats look real good, but what about just his on-court leadership?

JOEL JUSTUS: I think it can be better. And I’m harder on him probably than most because he’s a guy that is doing everything that Cal is asking him to do. He’s playing hard, he’s putting pressure on the ball, he’s flying the ball up the floor. Now we have got to get him to be the same as Nate in that he’s grabbing people, he’s pulling people and taking them with him. He should be a guy that is challenging guys to play as hard as he plays, to be in the right places, to execute. So you’re happy with his individual performance, but if we’re going to be who we hopefully can be, he’s going to be a big reason by grabbing other people and dragging other people, and that’s who he’s going to be at the next level. He’s going to have to be a guy that makes people uncomfortable and then they get better because of guys like him, and that’s like I said, what Nate’s doing.

Q. You were talking about physicality earlier. Are you pleased with the progress, especially going into a game like this? Do you feel like this team is being a little bit more physical inside the way that you want to see it at this point?

JOEL JUSTUS: I think it’s something that Cal has touched on probably from the first time he met with you all, I like our team, but are we going to be tough enough? And probably every time he does sit up here he is saying that. I worry about our toughness, I’m concerned about our toughness. So I’ll just echo that as I’m here and say, you know, you’re getting better and that’s all that you can kind of ask for out of a young group of guys that are trying. They’re listening, they’re eager, they’re hungry to be better. And like I said, I think tonight you out-rebounded the team by 10, alright, that’s better than the last game when we got out-rebounded. You go back and you watch the film and you watch technique, you watch positioning. All that is stuff that these young kids are just having to go through for the first time. So I think you’re pleased, you’re pleased with the effort, you’re pleased with the kids that are showing up, but we’ve got to obviously get better.

#10, Johnny Juzang, G, Fr.

On how great did it feel to see some of those shots fall tonight…

“It was awesome to contribute to the team and bring some energy. It was awesome. It was a fun environment to play in.”

On Joel Justus emphasizing the importance of getting better each time being on the court…

“Yeah, I think we all really came together, we were cheering for each other more than the last game. I think that’s a good general trend we want to go towards. Really playing for each other and cheering for each other in order to help each other out is a great trend, I feel the same thing in practice.”

On what you guys need to work on going into the Tuesday game…

“A big thing for us is our rebounding and our toughness, coming up with extra possessions and stuff like that, but it is probably going to be a dog fight, just going in and sticking together. We have so much talent and so many great players, I think if we just come in and play tough, hard, and smart we will be alright.”

#1, Nate Sestina, F, GS

On the team’s toughness…

“I thought we did a better job today. Guys were going after rebounds, it took a little bit, Coach Cal got on some guys at halftime, some of the meeting was about getting rebounds, he was on my case about getting rebounds. Started a fire underneath some of the guy’s butts and went out and rebounded.”

On his defensive toughness…

“We’ve been doing a lot in practice and just trying to translate it from practice into the game, and I still have to do a better job of going after rebounds instead of just hitting a guy, I have to go after them. I think the past five days since we’ve played, we’ve done a really good job of that in practice and just trying to translate that.”

On defensive toughness going against Michigan State…

“Every possession they are going to come after us and we’re going to go after them. It’s going to be a dog fight down low for who can come up with the most rebounds.”

#2, Kahlil Whitney, F, Fr.

On the difference between his game today and last game…

“It was my confidence. I went to the gym after the first game. The first game I was 0-5, so I had to get back in the gym. Other than that, just playing hard at all the times, I took a lot of plays off the first game and I had to keep my foot on the gas at all times today.”

On being an all-around athletic guy…

“That plays into everything. Sometimes my shots are not going to fall so I have to do other things like rebound, deflect plays and just play on the ball.”

On being physical…

“Coach put emphasis on being physical, a lot of box-out drills and bodies banging against each other. We have the number one team coming up on Tuesday, they have big guys on that team so we have to be physical. He really wanted us to be physical in every aspect of the game today, both physically and mentally.”

On the Michigan State game coming up…

“I expect everything from that game. It will probably be the biggest game of the year for both of us. So we just have to go into that game focused and try to get the job done. Those guys are big like we are. So it’s really going to be who is mentally the strongest, as well as physically. We have to work hard, stay humble and not get big headed going into that game. Like I said they’re the number one team in the country. A final four team, we have to go in and be physical.”